What makes The Newton Boys such an anomaly isn't simply that it's a film about criminals who don't embrace violence. The biggest surprise may be that the bank robbers at the heart of writer-director Richard Linklater's new film -- who during five years (1919-24) became the most successful bandits in U.S. history -- wanted to be rich but not famous.
Movies have taught us that outlaws and gangsters are meant to live fast and die young, all the while craving to see their faces plastered on wanted posters and newspaper front pages -- certainly not robbing banks in the dead of night, blowing the doors off safes with nitroglycerin and enjoying their spoils in obscurity.
But that's just what Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey, his charm on full blast) plans when he teams up with nitro expert Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and recruits his brothers Jess (Ethan Hawke), Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Joe Newton (Skeet Ulrich) to round out the crew.
The Newton Boys quickly defines their roles within the tightly knit group. Willis is the mastermind who convincingly espouses the philosophy that, in an innately corrupt boom-time society, robbing insured banks is a valid escape from their rural poverty. Jess is a hedonist, anxious for thrills and pleasure. Dock, fresh out of jail, is the faithful soldier. The youngest, Joe, is naively happy to be included, but hardens into a skeptic. Pale, sickly and primly efficient, Glasscock brings knowledge and experience to the gang, but never fits in temperamentally with the rowdy Newtons.
Director Linklater effectively uses the conventions of the gangster genre while quietly subverting them, and even though The Newton Boys is a beautifully filmed period piece, he doesn't glamorize these criminals in a traditional iconic way.
Even as the film moves inexorably toward the huge train robbery that would cap their career, The Newton Boys does its best to demystify the typical portrayal of outlaws. Linklater places the Newtons very much in their time and place, and views them simply as five ambitious individuals who successfully sliced their own piece of the American pie.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.